Not long after pausing to capture a few images of a Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the shore of Lake Minnewaska, then the painstaking process of following a farmer with a grain drill who insisted on driving down the middle of Highway 28 going through North Morris and forcing oncomers to take the shoulder and the followers to bide time, it was back on the open road once again. Back in the country on the backstretch home, and off to the west, a plume of smoke rose from the prairie.
Fire in the prairie this time of year is considered a good thing, a time of renewal. By burning off the thick duff left behind by several seasons of prairie grass thatch, a prairie fire brings potential death to invasive shrubs and trees as well as a lush new birth to the deep rooted native forbs and grasses. A prairie, say many, is forest turned upside down. The vast vegetative portion of the plants are all underground, anchoring ever deeper into the soil profile. The smoke plume reaching into the distant sky brought a smile.
After a weekend conference of Minnesota Master Naturalists at Camp Friendship just outside of Annandale, my thoughts were generally positive from meeting with like-minded, environmentally-friendly peers. This was a nice reprieve from new reports of global warming incidents around the globe. Landslides and flooding in the Balkans. Reports and charts portraying perhaps the warmest December on record worldwide. Wildfires once again ravishing the U.S.’s Southwest, which involved a cousin who was forced to evacuate her home going into the weekend.
To the west, the plume was getting ever closer and was exhibiting that familiar profile of width. Immediately I had hopes of capturing the crew working a prairie fire photographically.
On a long drive home, the mind wanders … and mine was. Wondering about my cousin and the fate of her home; of a fire of destruction as well as one of renewal. Then other thoughts drifted in … of how our own sons will fare in an ever changing and warming world.
Global warming has been a nearly constant conference and meeting agenda item this winter. Seminars and conferences have included the threatened bees and pollinators, and we attended two different presentations by icecap explorer Will Steger. At both he showed the incredible footage from the documentary, “Chasing Ice,” showing a massive ice field suddenly and unexpectedly collapsing that was captured on film by a crew. Indeed, while wildfires threatened my cousin’s California home, news broke that a collapse of massive portions of the Antarctic ice sheet now appears inevitable and could trigger a far higher sea-level rise than once projected — up to 12 feet, or four meters — according to major new studies by University of Washington and NASA researchers.
Those who have read Jon Bowermaster and Steger’s page-turner, “Crossing Antarctica,” will realize that more than half of the book and the issues his team faced on the trip were on the West Antarctic ice sheet — which is about the size of New Mexico and Arizona combined. This won’t happen in my lifetime, since it is estimated to occur over 200 years … a time span that, interestingly, sparked more thought from the weekend conference, again concerning global climate change.
It was during a keynote address by Dr. Lee Frelich, research associate and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, that he described the expected changes in the boreal forest biome in Northern Minnesota. At one point he agreed that, yes, the boreal had migrated over time as far south as Tennessee and as deep as the northern wilds of upper Ontario. “Those changes, though,” he explained, “occurred over thousands of years, which geologically are snapshots in time. What we’re seeing now, within a century or two, has not happened so fast in the history of earth.”
Core samples taken from a Siberian lake that offer a portrait of earth over nearly three million years gave proof, he said. Frelich added the forest profile around the Boundary Waters will take on significant change over the next 30 to 50 years and maybe even sooner. “If you want a preview of what the Boundary Waters will look like by 2050, go to Granite Falls along the Minnesota River in the Western Prairie. All along the river you have the same rock formations as you find in the BWCA, and you’ll see a plant profile there now that is very similar to what we’ll see there. Scrub cedar. Burr oak. A dominance of the maple species. Prickly pear in the rock formations.” You could sense an audible murmur as that reality settled around the room.
As I turned south onto a county blacktop off Highway 28, the remembrance of the murmur was lost as the plume of smoke grew ever closer.
“For a scientist,” I remembered him saying, “these are exciting times, for we’re seeing events in our lifetimes that have historically taken thousands if not millions of years to happen. Another drought. Increased instances and severities of windstorms, and the resulting fires will complete the transition. Already the understories of the new forests have taken hold. Drought, wind and fire will bring this succession to life in our lifetimes.” In some areas of Minnesota and Ontario, he predicted, the succession might be only a summer or two in the making … depending on those three climate-driven conditions.
Finally, on the Clinton road, as I drew mental images of Lake One with a Minnesota River plant profile, the prairie fire grew closer and closer, and finally the field appeared. There, south of the highway, a farmer was burning off the last of a wide CRP buffer strip, and was following behind the fire with a huge tiller pulled by a tracked behemoth tractor, turning the newly blackened prairie sod upside down to plant his next crop right to the lip of the drainage ditch.
As the professor said, “In our lifetimes …”